Think of the great prog metal albums of the twenty-first century. Many come to mind – Blackwater Park (Opeth), From Mars to Sirius (Gojira), Juggernaut Alpha/Omega (Periphery), Vector (Haken), Altered State (Tesseract), Leviathan (Mastodon). The one you’d add to this list is Between the Buried and Me’s (BTBAM) 2007 classic, Colors. Indeed, other than Blackwater Park, few records have had more of an influence on the last two decades of prog metal. It’s a brave decision from BTBAM to write a sequel to their seminal album, and they don’t make it easy for you by turning in a long-play effort of one hour and eighteen minutes. But then again, we wouldn’t expect anything other than a complex cerebral affair from one of the most technical and creative bands on the planet, would we?
Those intimidated by the colossal running time or those new to BTBAM should view Colors II as a triple album. For the purposes of this review, we’ll split the twelve songs into three parts to impose some order on the proceedings. Regular rest breaks are recommended if your end goal is to make sense of it all.
The first part (tracks 1-4) is a remarkable enterprise of sparkling alt-rock sadness coated in vessel-bursting extreme metal aggression. Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring are keen to cram as many chugging riffs as possible into the songs, almost like they’re doing a warm-up for a joint tour with Meshuggah. Thankfully, this is just one facet of their approach among the space-rock and bizarre Mr Bungle detours. Opener, ‘Monochrome’, will remind you of ‘Foam Born (A) The Backtrack’ from their 2007 predecessor record, yet the sorrowful keyboard reverberations give way to a mathcore frenzy at the end in preparation for the six epic minutes of ‘The Double Helix of Extinction’. This number goes heavy on the crunchy palm-muted syncopation and gives Tommy Giles Rogers free rein to explore the demented alter ego of his harsh vocal tone. With a dizzying number of components and modulations, it gives Dream Theater a run for their money and reminds you that BTBAM are also a big influence on the likes of Jinjer and Interloper.
The progressive death metal/dream rock of ‘Revolution in Limbo’ should be more of a slog, but the nine minutes pass by in an unforgettable medley of contrasting dynamics. Here, the band home in on their signature mix of introspection and aggression and even include a melodic chorus of sorts before disappearing down a tech death rabbit hole. To be fair, they extricate the song from mind-boggling complexity with a strange Mike Patton-esque interlude and a salsa-themed passage of lead guitar heroics straight from the hand of Carlos Santana. There’s a reason why BTBAM identify with the prog metal genre, and here is the evidence. No rules exist in this style of music – perhaps that’s the only rule. Perhaps, that’s why ‘Fix the Error’ feels like the most natural thing in the world when the extravagant organ swirl and bass-shredding evolve into a ballroom dance of vicious hardcore roars and colourful thrash patterns. Imagine Dream Theater playing Megadeth riffs with UFO’s Uli Jon Roth on guitar. Mike Portnoy even contributes a guest drum solo here along with Navene Koperweis (Entheos/The Faceless/Animals as Leaders) and Ken Schalk (Candiria). You can’t criticise a prog band for a triple ensemble of drum solos, just as you can’t accuse a grindcore band of being too aggressive. Most would be drawing things to a close here, but this is only the end of act one.
The second part (tracks 5-8) is the most experimental section of Colors II and the one that could lose you if you’re not one hundred percent focused on the music. You’ll need to free yourself from distractions to process the eleven minutes of ‘Never Seen/Future Shock’. Bassist, Dan Briggs, is in his element here, exploring the higher reaches of his fretboard as his bandmates weave in and out of an array of guitars chugs and scale patterns. The Jethro Tull reset after two minutes is a surprise to the senses, and the weird death metal waltz in the middle section creates the impression that this one will be too long for its own good. Be patient. Let it speak to you. Then you’ll enjoy the clean vocal harmonies and Pink Floyd ending. If not, ‘Stare into the Abyss’ offers you the palette cleanser you crave with its spellbinding synth patterns and space-rock vibe.
At this point, you’re wondering if you’ll ever understand the abstract lyrics. Vague concepts about abandoning the wisdom of the ancients and stanzas that describe the symptoms of psychosis and cabin fever make for a perplexing narrative. Listening with the lyric book to hand will help you navigate through the maze of Genesis prog-rock, but you might wonder if their friends in Haken have had an impact on the direction Colors II takes from here. ‘Prehistory’ and ‘Bad Habits’ could be from Haken’s 2016 Affinity album with their integration of gleaming 1980s pomp and twenty-first century drop-tuned metal rhythms. The cowbells and wah-wah guitar shenanigans in the latter are as surprising as the mathcore interpretation of Queen at the beginning. Tommy Giles Rogers’ guttural vocals seem like a tool to scare the AOR crowd impressed by the Genesis aspects of the music rather than a platform for righteous rage. Some of his harsh throat abrasions are contrived and unnecessary.
As the second single released ahead of the album, ‘The Future is Behind Us’ offers a promising start to the third and final part of the record (track 9-12). It’s also a useful refuelling point if you’re streaming the music on a long countryside walk or doing household chores. One thing we forget about BTBAM is their humour. The melodramatic orchestral hits of the keyboard could be from Michael Jackson’s Bad opus, yet the funky grooves give way to a scorching finale of bone-crunching metallic hardcore and leave you wondering what just happened. This is where they drop the pretence of referencing Genesis and start to imitate the English pioneers but through the perspective of extreme metal. ‘Turbulent’ is not as choppy as its title suggests, but the last part of Colors II is a rehearsal for the fifteen-minute climax of ‘Human is Hell (Another One with Love)’. We have two reference points here. Is it as good as ‘Reptile’ by Periphery or ‘The Architect’ by Haken? The answer is not quite, but it’s a fine attempt to equal the majestic brilliance of these two defining songs of modern prog metal. The blast beats and spindly string-skipping patterns will mesmerise you as much as the metallic surf rock at 06:20 seconds, not to mention the Dream Theater trade-off of keyboards and guitars leading up to the ten-minute mark. It should not work, but it does, and it doesn’t exhaust your endurance levels, either. But that’s because you’re prepared for the audio onslaught of technical wizardry by pacing yourself and splitting the album into three parts, right? (Ha, ha.)
For a band that write songs about daydreaming, the loneliness of writer’s block, and sleepwalking into a dystopian society, BTBAM will always have some unintelligible aspects to their art. These remain enigmatic and impenetrable, and that might be the intention of its creators. After all, music is a language without the written word. How we understand it is what makes for a great subjective experience. Colors II asks more questions than it offers in answers, and the monumental length will prove tedious for many who already have a limited capacity for chugging metal riffs and bass guitar meanderings. Just looking at the running time of the individual tracks is enough to demoralise many a listener.
But you’ll understand why BTBAM called this album and its illustrious predecessor, Colors, to describe the artistic experience. This record is a palette of many shades and emotions, and you can never accuse it of being one-dimensional or formulaic. As a sequel to a legendary opus, it’s a worthy follow-up and one that need not intimidate if you give it the special treatment it deserves. Few artists would dare to write something as ambitious as this, and few have the musicianship to realise such a vision for their art. With a bit or persistence, you might even come to know it inside out by 2030.
Release Date: 20/08/2021
Record Label: Sumerian Records
Standout tracks: The Double Helix of Extinction, Never Seen/Future Shock, The Future is Behind Us
Suggested Further Listening:
Haken – Affinity (2016), Interloper – Search Party (2021), Mr Bungle – Mr Bungle (1990)